29 August 2007

Will Free Software Licences Be Derailed?

Upholding licences is crucial to the success of free software, so potentially, this looks really bad news:

Open-source software and the licenses that govern it suffered a serious setback in a San Francisco District Court earlier this month, following a preliminary decision that could effectively deprive open source licensors from being able to get a court injunction to stop the violation of the terms of their license going forward.

Although the judge's analysis is superficially worrying for the way he interprets the licence, there is an important fact in this particular situation, which has already involved tussles over software patents:

At issue was model train software code that Jacobsen and some other open source developers wrote, called the Java Model Railroad Interface, or JMRI, which is licensed under the Open Source Initiative approved Artistic License.

Now the Artistic Licence, originally drawn up by Larry Wall for Perl - and whose name was chosen purely for the pun it allowed - is a notoriously loose licence. IANAL, but it seems to me that the problem the judge has with granting an injunction against the model train software company is that the Artistic Licence simply gives, well, too much licence.

I may be wrong, but I think the far more demanding GNU GPL would avoid this problem - another good reason for choosing a more rigorous licence. We shall see whether I am right....


Anonymous said...

I don't know that this sets precedence for FLOSS in general, just the Artistic License. If coders are looking for protection, they should stay away from licenses that are known to be problematic.

Glyn Moody said...

That's my hope and belief too - if, indeed, there is ultimately a problem here.